HDTV/DTV technology didn’t just advance; it accelerated!

Walt S. CicioraI have just finished reading “High Definition Television: The Creation, Development and Implementation of HDTV Technology” by Philip J. Cianci. The title describes the book well. It is a book about how it all happened. It’s not a book that teaches how the technology works; instead, the history of HDTV and the digital evolution is covered. That said, the book doesn’t require knowing the technology in order to understand the story, but, of course, some understanding of the technology will add to your enjoyment.

I have been interested in the history of television and have collected a couple of shelves full of books on both the technology and the history of television – from the early mechanical television days to the present. Yes, mechanical television came before electronics. (That’s another fascinating story by itself.) This book deserves a prime place on my shelf of TV books, bringing the story up to date. I recommend this book to anyone who has a similar interest in how our television world came to be as it is now.

The title of this column is borrowed from another book I would recommend: “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen. When he covers the hard drive business and its incredibly fast evolution, he describes it as “fast history.” That aptly describes the HDTV/digital television story. In fact, I find it hard to believe so much has happened so quickly. The technology didn’t just advance; it accelerated!

The book is extremely detailed, with loads of colorful information. The cast of characters is huge. If each person named buys a book, the publication will be a success. Anyone who lived through that era will find the book a great memory refresher. The book is especially enjoyable if you know the personalities.

There is an alphabet soup of acronyms that have sprung up that put the telephone industry to shame. You need a scorecard. There are six pages of acronyms listed, and as you read the book, you will find a few that have missed the list. While the print size is not large, the 28 pages of notes have even smaller print. Five pages of bibliography allow you to dig even deeper. This is a scholarly work.

NHK, the Japanese public television organization, started a study concerning the future of television decades ago. Its approach used digital processing of the signal to reduce bandwidth, but it employed analog transmission that required more bandwidth than standard-definition television. And this approach was incompatible with SDTV, leading to the problem of making a transition. During the conversion to HDTV, much of the programming would have to be simulcast in both HDTV and SDTV. Initially, none of this seemed attractive.

Two entities thought there might be some advantage to HDTV. Broadcasters were losing spectrum to mobile communication at an alarming rate. Broadcasters protested that they would need that spectrum for HDTV and that the giveaway must be stopped. The second entity was the consumer electronics industry. Color television receivers had become a commodity. They were now sold in grocery stores. The price had fallen to $10 an inch, and then to $5 an inch. Something new and with higher margins would be attractive. Politicians in several countries even thought HDTV might bring back receiver manufacturing and the jobs that went with that production.

Creative juices began flowing. Inventors came up with ideas and approaches. Papers were written and presented. The Federal Communications Commission stated the objective of compatibility with existing television, just as color television was compatible with black-and-white television and stereo sound was compatible with monaural sound. Someone with a very old black-and-white television receiver could still receive signals that others saw in color and heard in stereo. The FCC would like those old monochrome receivers to also display an acceptable picture when presented with an HDTV transmission. That was asking too much.

The FCC did hold to 6 MHz channels for HDTV, but compatibility was clearly not going to happen. A large number of technical proposals were made, eventually coming down to about 20 analog HDTV proposals. Zenith had a novel approach, with the low-frequency content of the signal digitalized and the high-frequency content left in analog. This hybrid approach dramatically reduced the power in the broadcast signal while attempting to keep the digital electronics affordable by giving it the easier, lower-frequency tasks. General Instrument shocked everyone by proposing an all-digital approach. It rapidly became clear that only a digital approach would be acceptable. Soon, nearly all of the proponents converted their proposals to all-digital.

The problem was that none of the proposals made acceptable pictures. The schedule got ahead of the technology. An important part of the book covers the struggle to merge the “best of the best” into one system. The major proponents formed the “Grand Alliance” and worked out their differences in private. The book names the key players and describes their roles.

More next time.